Laurie is the Disabilities Ministries Director at Warm Beach Camp in Stanwood WA. She's been on staff there since 1989, when she moved from Oregon and served as a Program Staff Counselor her first summer. Over the years, as she has worked with campers, she has developed many programs to reach out to the hundreds of children and youth who pass through the camp every summer. She's a fixture at Warm Beach and has touched many lives through Christian camping.
From time to time folks would approach the leadership at Warm Beach, asking if there wasn’t some way they could provide a program for the developmentally disabled. It was a great idea, something the camp was open to, but they were waiting for “an expert” to come along, someone who knew the needs of that population and how best to meet them.
About seven years ago a couple of community women came to Laurie. One was Shelly Rubatino, the director of Stanwood High School’s Transition Center, which provides transition experiences and training for 18-21 year-olds with developmental disabilities; Leah Merklinghaus, the coach of Stanwood’s Special Olympics teams, was the other. Both women were passionate about serving the special needs community, and they had an idea.
They wanted the camp to sponsor a four-day day camp for special needs adults.
Not only did these women have an idea, they also had the expertise the camp was waiting for. And that’s how Special Friends Camp came to be.
During the summer of 2007 Warm Beach Camp hosted their first week of day camp for special needs adults. I attended a portion of the orientation session for the camp staff and volunteers. Most of the workers had little experience serving people with developmental disabilities, but they were eager to learn how to make this week at camp an outstanding experience for them.
Special Friends Camp was a great success that first summer! So great, in fact, that it has become a regular part of the summer schedule. In its 6th year in 2012, they hosted five sessions for folks 15 and older.
Each week saw 70 to 100 people -- campers and staff -- hanging out for four days full of activity. From swimming to chapel to mini-golf to group time to climbing the tower and ziplining, Special Friends campers are treated to the same activities that able-bodied campers enjoy. And for many of them, it’s the first time they’ve had these opportunities.
|Mother and Son|
When I dropped by the camp one day last summer to see Special Friends Camp in action, everyone was having a great time! The fire truck had just come and campers were checking it out. Some donned the uniform or climbed into the driver’s seat of the truck.
Although the camp provides some of the staffing, most of the staff are volunteers. They might be teens or retirees, even families, who give a week of their summer, just for the joy of it. Most spend the week as a buddy to one specific camper. Others are rovers, available to do whatever they can to make the week go well. All have a heart for service and are loyal and full of energy!
The experience is really a close-to-home mission trip for the volunteers. It puts them in a setting different from their home environment, working with adults with developmental disabilities, growing in their awareness of the world around them and loving them in Jesus’ name. And from what I’ve seen, the volunteers love it!
They arrive on Monday, the day before the campers come, and have an 8-hour orientation. Most stay in the cabins at Chinook Village and after the campers have left for the day they get refreshed at the chapel service at W-Bar-B Ranch where youth camp is in session.
For now Warm Beach Camp will continue to host several weeks of Special Friends Camp each summer. You’ll find the dates for 2013 camps – along with other details – at the Warm Beach Camp website. Their dream is to one day offer overnight programming and camps for younger children. They are making slow and steady progress toward those goals.
I asked Leah Merklinghaus about Special Friends Camp. "I'd like to say how amazing Warm Beach Camp is for saying YES [for starting the program] and how amazing God is in his faithfulness in growing the camp. It's been great to watch him at work in the lives of the campers and, much to our surprise, the volunteers."
Laurie Fertello says the best thing about Special Friends Camp is that "we are continually ably to say 'Yes!' Moms bawl when they hear, 'Yes, your child can ride a horse!' 'Yes, your child can swim!' 'Yes, your child can go on the zipline!'”
So here’s where I get to say, “Yes!” Yes, you can!
- Are you interested in volunteering at Special Friends Camp? Check it out!
- Are you thinking about starting a camp where you are but don’t have an expert to help you? Or are you the one with the knowledge and desire to see something happen but don’t know where to start? Go for it! Don’t be afraid to look for other like-minded people who have an interest too. Pray for the Lord to direct you to them. Contact Laurie Fertello at Warm Beach and pick her brain.
- If there’s the slightest nudge inside that you’d like to be a part of Special Friends Camp, follow the example of Laurie, Shelly, Leah, and hundreds of volunteers who have gone before you. Yes, you can!